This month my main task is to finish a piece of writing for my thesis. I’m a slow writer and it is something I tend to struggle with. I often feel like the character in “The Plague” who writes and re-writes the first sentence of his novel so much that he never moves past it. So I have learned certain strategies to help me get going with writing, and hopefully to help me improve what I do write.
First off, read lots. Writing in a style that you are comfortable with and also is appropriate to the overall work is difficult. I’m a fan of the simple writing put forward by Daniel Oppenheimer (see below for reference). It’s also helpful to find examples of the writing style you like, then use that as a guide. I do sometimes ask myself “how would Micheal Sandel explain that concept?”. I know it can be dangerous because you might end up sounding like someone else, but if it helps you get words on the page to act as a draft, all to the good. You can always edit it after to sound more like you. So as you are reading around your subject, if something seems particularly good, think about the writing style. And the more you read, the more you will find what works and what doesn’t.
Secondly, check your grammar. I am not good with this stuff. I did English to GCSE, but there wasn’t anything about the structure of language or grammar rules in that anyway, so I pretty much have no knowledge of these things. So I need help. The reason this is important is because if you’re trying to put across a serious point or be persuasive, having commas in the wrong place or lacking a semi-colon will not help you any. Poor grammar takes away from your argument simply because it takes away from your credibility. Get someone who is good at these things to proofread for you and be brutally honest. Also, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White is a handy guide to some basic grammar rules.
Third, timings. I’ve started using the pomodoro method to write. Set a timer for 25 minutes, write continuously for that, do something else for 5 minutes, start over. That way you get some words you can edit. Also, it forces you to stop and start. Often I will find myself staring at a word document not knowing what to say, and hours can pass in this frustrating process. But by putting a time limit on it (one that’s attuned to the human attention span in fact), there’s suddenly a challenge aspect. It doesn’t matter if what you write in that time is good or not. Getting the words on the page is the important thing as it gives you something to work with.
I think quite often it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that what we write should be brilliant the first time around. The words should flow onto the page perfectly formed, simply because in our heads we know what we mean. But instead I think that an argument needs to be carved. You start with a big block of wood (or stone, marble, clay whatever your preferred imaginary medium may be) and then the first draft is hashing out a rough shape. It uses the blunt instruments to get an overall sense of what you’re trying to create, then as you go through it again and again, the tools become finer, the changes smaller and the idea clearer. We don’t start with the Venus de Milo. We start with a shapeless lump. You have to craft it to make the beautiful thing appear.
Ref: Oppenheimer, D. (2006) “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” Applied Cognitive Psychology 20 pp139-156
NOTE: Yes, after saying grammar is important, I’ve doubtless made several mistakes in this post. I don’t care all that much. I use this blog as a place where I can discuss doing a PhD informally. For me, informal means not stressing over commas.